In a humble garage hard on the banks of the Rhine River in an industrial part of Cologne, Germany, Kai Parthy is creating some astonishing materials for use in 3D printers.
Parthy arrived at this juncture as an inventor after a few wild career swings. From shoemaker in a Leipzig theater to technician in an underground music club in Cologne to truck mechanic, Parthy then studied process engineering and began inventing in earnest.
His first creation, a DIY stamp kit, led him to a chance meeting with Ian Adkins at the Euromold Show in Frankfurt back in 2009. Adkins, the founder of Bits from Bytes, was producing machines based on work done by the RepRap Project, which had originated at the University of Bath in the UK. Bits from Bytes became part of the 3D Systems family in October 2010.
After being hooked as a result of his talks with Adkins, Parthy began his serious love affair with 3d printing and his groundbreaking work developing new materials.
But the development of new printing media has not been without hurdles to overcome for Parthy. He says many smart materials for 3D printing processes already exist in the prosumer market, but are restricted from further refinement by patent holders. Parthy points to the temperature controlled build chamber patent held by Stratasys as an example.
He calls himself "an old school anti-warp fighter" who tests material features with a series of home-built tools. One of those tools, a vicat heat distortion gauge, is filled with sunflower oil instead of the common glycerine.
In developing his Laywoo-D3 and Laybrick materials, scaling up from blending polymers with kitchen devices to blending them with massive machines in the hundreds of pounds range posed the biggest challenge.
"No company wanted to blend, dry and extrude only a few kilograms," Parthy said. "One ton would have to be the first minimum order. I had to find a company willing to collect branches for the wood fibers and then an extruding company that had all the necessary equipment in-house – and enough patience with me."
Perhaps his most intriguing material, wood fiber-based Laywoo-D3 seems to include rings like those found in trees. "I wanted to have a filament without warp, for printing bigger objects," Parthy said. "After putting pigments into the blend which I thought would reduce the warp, I found, after lot of failures, an optically interesting rough wood-containing filament. It was only later that I discovered the tree ring effect." The tree ring look of the finished printed object comes from variations in printing temperature.
Asked if he considers his products "green," a claim that's been assigned to his Laywoo-D3 by some media, he was somewhat skeptical.
"To brew beer at home is nice – and the beer tastes better than from the supermarket – but is this truly a bio product? I think not," Parthy said. "The carbon footprint of industrial products is hundreds of times smaller than it would be producing everything at home. I think it's generally the same with 3D printing."
Asked if he has more material breakthroughs in the pipeline, he is hesitant to respond, citing superstition, but adds that he does have two or three big filaments in development. Whether or not they eventually come to market depends on his ability to come up with the necessary investors and capital.
And speaking of capital, it too has been a stumbling block on the road to producing large enough quantities of his current line of filaments to service the growing demand.
"It's true, I can't produce enough right now and I can only sell materials to my dealers in appetizer amounts," he said. "But, I do sell to the most distant corners of the world, and I'm focusing on getting my filaments through the pipeline as I get better funded."
What would Kai like to see in the future? "I want to print titanium frames for my glasses, not from ABS," says Parthy. "I'm afraid we're not going to get a machine for printing a copy of the latest iPhone, at least in this century."